The Lost Town of Mercer and the Bridges at The End of the Road

In December of 1979 or so, my parents had taken me to Jackson, Tennessee for my birthday. We had eaten at the Old English Steak House, and had visited the small towns of Beech Bluff and Mercer. What I recall about Mercer was that it had a rather large and historic downtown area along the railroad track and the Main Street which ran perpendicular to it. I recall that one of the large buildings was called the Mercer Opry, and was a place where country music shows were held on the weekends. I hadn’t thought much about Mercer in years, but our recent trips to Brownsville for fife-and-drum workshops reminded me of it as we often pass the exit for Mercer Road as we head to Jackson, so I looked the town up recently in Google Earth, and was distressed to see how few buildings appeared in the downtown area. That fact convinced me that I needed to revisit the little town and photograph what was left before anything else disappears. Of course, the culprit has been rain. Most of our Saturday trips to Brownsville have been in the rain, and this weekend was part of a four-day sequence of storms and flooding, so today was the first day pretty enough for me to take the Nikon out after work and think about heading that way.
Although much is gone, there are still some historic buildings along Main Street, including one that has been turned into a small antique store and ice cream parlor called Mayberry’s. A large two story building across the street was once a general store, and there is an historic church in the next block. Along McGlathery Avenue were a number of historic homes, some of them well-kept, others decrepit and abandoned. There was also a former service station that apparently has become a car customizing service, but it seemed to have an old Mercer fire truck beside it that has been restored.
The former railroad right-of-way has become a road called Sturdivant Crossing Road, which I headed down, as it leads to a place on the Hatchie River where all roads end, a place called Hatchie Station. But because of four days of heavy rain, the road was closed due to high water, and I had to detour around and onto Hatchie Station Road instead. Although there is nothing at Hatchie Station except residences, it was a worthwhile trip, as both Sturdivant Crossing Road and Hatchie Station Road end in old and odd bridges across the Hatchie River, and the setting is lovely, with plenty of water, woods on the other side of the river, and the sun setting in the west.
The bridge from Hatchie Station Road was nothing but steel beams, with no deck, leading across the river to nothing. The one from Sturdivant Crossing Road (which at Hatchie Station was renamed Stafford Lane) hadbeen gated off, but was once a railroad bridge for the old Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, which headed from Mercer and Hatchie Station to Vildo in Hardeman County, and from there to Somerville in Fayette County before heading to Eads, Lenow, Cordova, Shelby Farms and Memphis. There had also been a highway that ran from Somerville to Jackson, appearing on maps as late as 1959, but that too was long gone. As I photographed both bridges, I met a man named Stafford, who explained to me that the first bridge at the end of Hatchie Station Road was a bridge that had been started but never finished, and over which no traffic ever passed. He said that while there were several theories about why the bridge was never completed, the most frequently-heard story was that the bridge had been a joint venture between Madison and Haywood Counties, but that the two counties had a falling-out over it, and so Haywood withdrew its support and the bridge was never completed. As for the old railroad bridge, Mr. Stafford said that it had become unstable, so he gated it off, but he didn’t know why the road that led to Somerville had been abandoned. I thanked him for his time, and headed off toward Bemis (a former company town which might be worth photographing in the future), and Jackson, where I sat down to dinner at The Blacksmith Bar and Grill

“They Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”: Mardi Gras Indians Uptown and Downtown

The traditional Mardi Gras parades can be fun, but my favorite part of carnival is in the ‘hoods and backstreets, where the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians appear in their elaborate costumes, beating drums, chanting and marching through the streets. Despite an ostensibly First Nations frame of reference, the Indians, who call their organizations “gangs” rather than “tribes”, seem far more an American reading of an African tradition, or perhaps one from the Caribbean. There are both “uptown” gangs and “downtown” gangs, as this is the broad division that once defined the difference between “Creoles” and “American Blacks,” but on this particular Mardi Gras Day, all of the gangs I saw were from Uptown, even the Black Flame Hunters which I encountered downtown under the I-10 bridge on North Claiborne Avenue.
My homeboy Darren Towns went with me briefly as I went to encounter the Indians, even though he didn’t particularly want to. Like a lot of Black New Orleanians I have met, he didn’t particularly want to see the Indians, as he remembered seeing someone’s head get split open one Mardi Gras Day when they didn’t get out of the way of a gang that was coming. Fear of violence seems to be the main reason for negative views of the gangs, even though violence in the Indian subculture has been decreasing steadily since the 1950’s. Nowadays, the bulk of the battles are ritual confrontations that consist of dancing and drumming in known places where the tribes meet, such as Second and Dryades, an uptown corner which is important to the Indian tradition. One bar on the corner, the Sportsman’s Lounge, is the headquarters for the gang known as the Wild Magnolias. Behind it is a large brick building called Handa Wanda, where I attended my first Indian practice ever a few years ago.
The gangs are accompanied by drummers, generally playing bass drums, or occasionally tenor drums, and tambourines are also used. After beginning their day with a “ritual prayer” called “My Indian Red”, the gang may run through a number of call-and-response chants, such as “Shallow Water O Mama”, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, “They (or Somebody) Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”, “Get the Hell Out The Way” or “Two Way Pocky Way.” The Big Chief may engage in a considerable amount of boasting and bragging, some of which may include words from an “Indian language” that might include French, Spanish, Creole or African terms. The drumming, chanting and brilliant-colored costumes all create an atmosphere that is quite reminiscent of the Caribbean, and unlike anything elsewhere in America. The men in these tribes will wear their elaborate outfits only twice more this year, once on St. Joseph’s Night in March, and once again during uptown or downtown events called Super Sundays that occur toward the end of March. In the past the suits would have been burned, but a number of them have ended up in museums nowadays, which is quite appropriate, as they are intricate works of art. At the end of the day, I was quite tired, and when I caught back up with Darren and his wife and kids, we decided to head uptown to Pizza Domenica, which we knew was open from previous years. It was crowded, but we managed to get in, and enjoyed some delicious pizza there, before heading out to City Park for coffee and beignets at Morning Call. It was truly a Mardi Gras for the ages.

To New Orleans Across The Mississippi Delta

Originally, I was to have headed out to New Orleans on Saturday, which would have enabled me to go to Houma for a parade with my homeboys in the To Be Continued Brass Band, but I was still under the weather on Saturday, and so I decided not to head out until the next day which was Sunday. And although I felt better Sunday morning, I was still not exactly well yet. But I decided to leave out early in the morning, and to head across the Delta, down Highway 61 and Highway 1, in the hopes of finding some pictures worth taking, and although it was a grey and dismal day, I did have some success in that regard. Taking Highway 1 from Lula brought me through some communities that really were headquarters for some of the large plantations, which almost always nowadays are called “farms.” The first one I came to was a community called Stovall, where there was an abandoned store. The Stovalls were a prominent family in Coahoma County, and Muddy Waters had once lived on their land. As I photographed the old brick store, I wondered how many times Muddy Waters had been inside it. The old Stovall home was to the right, near the river, but I didn’t recognize it as such because it had been renamed Seven Chimney Farms. The house actually does have seven chimneys, and seems to be in the process of being restored. Further down was a community called Sherard, which, if the store is to be believed, dates from 1874. The place consisted of the abandoned store, several elegant houses in a grove of trees, a church, and some smaller houses along the highway. At Rena Lara, I stopped for a soft drink at the Great River Road Store, which I was surprised to see serves also as a bar, pool hall and on weekends, upscale restaurant with steaks. I made a mental note to come back some Friday or Saturday to try the steaks. Perthshire was the next community I came to, and like some of the others, it appeared to be the headquarters for a farm, which I learned had been the Knowlton Plantation. What was once a company store was clearly evident on the little street that paralleled the highway. I could make out a rather elaborate house at the end of the east-west street off the highway, but it seemed to be at the end of a long private drive, so I photographed only a glimpse of it from the public street. Gunnison was the first town of any size that I came to along Highway 1, and I was eager to photograph there, as I had once seen some interesting-looking jukes there, and had failed to photograph them because of the groups of young men standing around outside them that I feared would object. Unfortunately, there was not nearly as much to be seen in Gunnison nowadays. One of the jukes from my visit years ago had turned into a motorcycle club, and there was no trace of the other. A club I didn’t recall from the past was operating on a side street, with a fair number of cars in front of it, but it had no signage whatsoever, and was operating more or less I suppose under the table. A well-preserved and still open vintage service station on Highway 1 was perhaps the best find in the little town. Beulah was even more desolate than Gunnison had been, although I found a few old downtown structures to photograph. Benoit had the Last Call Bar and Grill, with the words “Mississippi” and “Blues” on its side for good measure, and just to the south was the Monsanto-owned company town of Scott, Mississippi, with its beautiful setting between Lake Bolivar and Deer Creek. Scott had been the headquarters town for the Delta Pine and Land Company, which was once the largest cotton plantation in the world. D P & L was later acquired by Royal Dutch Shell for a period of time, before it was sold to Monsanto in St. Louis. Scott is laid out around a peaceful square across from the large building that houses the post office and which must have once been the company store. There is now an upscale restaurant called Five O’Clock On Deer Creek which is located on the main road, adjacent to the creek. Down from there, I passed through decrepit communities called Lamont and Winterville and into the city of Greenville, where I decided to stop for a lunch. Greenville has a Frostop location, and there I had quite a delicious bacon cheeseburger. From there I made my way to Highway 61 at Arcola, and took pictures there, in Estill, where there was an old collapsing wooden church which looked historic, in Hollandale, at Panther Burn, and in the old ghost town of Nitta Yuma, which is being carefully preserved by the descendants of the family that founded it. Past there, I basically ran out of light, and headed on into Jackson, and down to McComb, where I stopped for dinner at a Santa Fe Steak House, before continuing my journey down to New Orleans.

Celebrating Women in the Blues at Rust College

Amy Verdon, the New York-based owner of the online magazine Fancy! and its record-label offshoot Go Ape Records has been quite a contributor to the cause of the Hill Country Blues, helping to record artists such as Robert Kimbrough and R. L. Boyce and helping to put on last year’s Kimbrough Cotton Patch Blues Festival. This year, she put together a special exhibit of photographs intended to highlight the role of women in the blues in Mississippi. The exhibit was displayed at the Leontyne Price Library on the campus of Rust College in Holly Springs, and since I had photographs in it, I made plans to attend the opening reception, despite the extremely cold and miserable weather we were having.
Photos celebrated Hill Country musicians such as Jessie Mae Hemphill, as well as a number of dancers. I was amazed by the schedule of the 1983 Memphis Music and Heritage Festival, which proved that legendary Bartlett bluesman Lum Guffin had headlined a gospel group on one of the stages. Several of the performers scheduled to play the next night at The Hut were present, including Johnny B. Sanders and Iretta and Robert Kimbrough Sr, and a few people came through to check out the photos. The exhibit will remain up through the end of February.

A Fife-and-Drum Workshop in Brownsville, Tennessee

Fife and drum music once flourished in West Tennessee, but similar to what happened in Georgia, disappeared rapidly in the 1970’s. The last evidence we have of any fife and drum activity in West Tennessee is the recordings made of a Fayette County band in 1980, although I have always considered it likely that some fife and drum activity took place in Tipton and Haywood Counties as well. Last summer, the Tennessee State Department of Archives and History decided to sponsor a mentoring project that seems intended to reintroduce the fife and drum band style to West Tennessee, by having a Mississippi fife and drum musician mentor a young Tennesseean. The program ended up hiring Como, Mississippi bluesman R. L. Boyce and having him work with a young female drummer in Brownsville named Kesha Burton. Boyce is a nephew of the late Otha Turner, and began his music career as a snare drummer for various fife and drum ensembles in Panola and Tate Counties in Mississippi, so he was a good choice to teach the drumming styles of this music to young people. On December 12, 2017, we carried him up to Brownsville for his first lesson with Kesha, which took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville. After the lesson, I had an opportunity to walk around Brownsville taking pictures of the square and nearby streets and neighborhoods. I especially enjoyed walking down South Jackson Avenue, which had once been the heart of the Black community in Brownsville, although there are no longer any juke joints or cafes still operating. Perhaps the oddest visit of the day was to a massive outdoor art installation called the Mindfield, the long-term work-in-progress of folk artist and visionary Billy Tripp. Somewhat in the same vein as the Watts Towers or St. Paul’s Spiritual Temple in Memphis, the Mindfield is an autobiographical work, although it also contains bits of slogans and symbols that indicate something of Tripp’s philosophies about life and society. Next door to it is a restaurant called the Mindfield Grill that seems to warrant a future visit.

Remembering the Legacy of Bartlett’s Shadowlawn High School

Back in 1979, I had attended Shadowlawn Middle School in a rural area along Shadowlawn Road north of Ellendale. I was in the sixth grade then, and remember that I had to get up really early to catch the bus to ride out there, and my parents didn’t like it. I don’t know where I had heard the rumor that our school had once been a high school, but I recall asking one of our teachers about it, and she had stated that Shadowlawn had never been a high school. Back then, I never found any evidence to the contrary, but I do remember that the slogan “Soul Power” was spray-painted on one of the yellow road signs along Shadowlawn Road, and that there was still a grocery store open in those days, but we students were forbidden to go over there.
I learned the truth about Shadowlawn many years later, as a high school student at Bartlett High School in 1985 or 1986. Our school library and the main office had many of the old Panther Parade yearbooks, and when I looked at one from 1971, I noticed that a majority of the Black seniors in the book were said to have “transferred from Shadowlawn.” Furthermore, each student was allowed to list all of their activities, including those at Shadowlawn. I learned that the school had had a student newspaper, a band, a choir, and social clubs called the Gracious Ladies, the Gentlemen’s Club and the Elite Club. They had had football, basketball, baseball and track, a competitive current events quiz team and a drill team. There was also in that yearbook a picture of the straight A students from Shadowlawn, and a reference to “two completely different schools becoming one.” I decided that the history of this Black high school near Bartlett that had never produced a graduating class should be researched and documented, and I set out to do that. Through my friends in Ellendale and Oak Grove, I had no problem in finding and interviewing former students, and since I was required to do a senior term paper in English class, I decided to do the history of Shadowlawn High School as my topic. Unfortunately, the English teacher, Mrs. Reed denied permission for the topic, and I had to write about something else, which proved to be the Memphis Blues Brass Band, but I continued the research on Shadowlawn, interviewing former students and teachers, and desperately looking for memorabilia without really ever finding any. Ultimately I never wrote the paper/article/book, as I could never find any relevant photographs, and I felt that the story without pictures would not be nearly as compelling.
When I heard late last year that a Shadowlawn Alumni Association had been formed, and that a reunion had been held, I was amazed, and a little saddened that I hadn’t heard about it and hadn’t attended it. So when I discovered that a historic marker would be unveiled in front of the school on December 2, which also happened to be my birthday, I was determined to be present. Although my research had nothing to do with what was occurring, I felt it was something of a validation of what I had believed in back in 1985, and just a little comfort (too little in my opinion) for those seniors in 1971 who had been denied the right to graduate from their high school. On this cold Saturday morning, as I heard these men and women sing their alma mater, which choir and band director Lonnie Neely had written to the tune of Henry Mancini’s “Charade”, I felt the thrill of seeing an injustice partially put to rights. Thus inspired, my research into Shadowlawn and the neighborhoods around it continues.
Also thrilling to me was the opportunity to meet the Rev. Arthur Becton, a descendant of Thomas and Mittie Becton, who donated the land on which Shadowlawn School was built. Rev. Becton had known the Bartlett-area blues musician Lum Guffin personally, and was familiar with the fife-and-drum tradition in the area. He explained to me that in addition to the Independent Order of Pall Bearers and Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion, that there had also been another organization with a fife-and-drum band called the Social Benevolent Society, which used to hold picnics at a place called Early Brown Grove, which he said was near the corner of present-day Kirby-Whitten Parkway and Egypt-Central Road. He also told me that in that day when Blacks in the area were primarily without telephones, that the bass drum was beaten to inform people that someone in the club had died, or that someone was ill and needed visiting. Of the annual Brunswick picnic, he described how the picnic grounds were strung with strands of white Christmas lights so that the party could go on long after dark. I hope to do a formal interview with Rev. Becton in the next few weeks. Altogether it was a wonderful and uplifting morning.

Great Breakfasts and a Taste of History at The Brunswick Kitchen

I had been hearing about a new restaurant that had opened in the old Brunswick community along Brunswick Road, and I had even ventured out there after church a couple of Sundays and found it closed. Finally, I learned that the place was called The Brunswick Kitchen, and that they were only open for lunch during the week, and for breakfast until noon on Saturdays. So on the first Saturday morning in November, I made a trip out Brunswick Road and across the railroad tracks to the restaurant, which is located in a low, brick building that used to be a general store. Although there are a few parking places in front of the building, The Brunswick Kitchen routinely attracts crowds that fill up the overflow parking on the gravel lot across the street.
The restaurant’s interior is cheerful. The room is spacious, almost like a camp dining hall, and the space is filled with memorabilia and historic photos of the Brunswick community. The restaurant bustles with activity, but the staff are friendly and full of smiles, and seem more like members of a family than employees of a business. Despite the busy-ness, there is rarely a wait for a table.
As for the breakfast menu, it is nothing special, just standard breakfast fare such as bacon and eggs or omelettes, but the prices are low, and the simplest of items are prepared with loving care and exquisite attention to detail. I opted for a bacon, cheddar and bleu cheese omelette, which was absolutely amazing. It came with hash browns, which were golden brown and crispy, just as I like them, and with a biscuit, butter and grape jelly. Meals are cooked after you order, and depending on the size of the crowd, can take a bit of time to come out, but the coffee is good, and the waitstaff great about refilling your cup.
A word of caution is in order, however. The Brunswick Kitchen is NOT the place for a leisurely brunch on Saturday, as they close at noon! It is also in a fairly remote location between Bartlett and Lakeland, so from most parts of Memphis proper, it is a bit of a drive. You will have to get up early to make it there, but it is worth it. I am also told that TBK has started opening on Friday nights to serve catfish. I will have to try that next.

The Brunswick Kitchen
5197 Brunswick Rd
Brunswick, TN 38002
(901) 730-0907

Celebrating the Hill Country Tradition at Como’s Annual Day

Each October, the City of Como, Mississippi sponsors a large, daylong festival and picnic called Como Day, featuring vendors, food trucks, custom cars and excellent live music. Como Day is one of a number of “town days” that are held in predominantly-Black Mississippi towns. These are held throughout the year, generally bear the name of the town, feature live music, and often become an excuse for those who moved away to return home for a day or a weekend. Although most small towns have some sort of festival, these town days are unique, functioning almost like a homecoming for these communities, many of which no longer have high schools due to consolidations, and which have lost many residents to bigger cities. Como’s massive day is one of the largest, and also serves as something of an annual end to the blues festival season, as the last big blues event of the year. Uniquely situated at the place where the Hill Country meets the Delta, Como has a long blues tradition, and its local gospel, blues, soul and funk are highlighted at Como Day each year.
This year’s Como Day featured a crowd of well over a thousand people, coming out to enjoy barbecue, live gospel music, Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, the Duwayne Burnside Band featuring Garry Burnside and J. J. Wilburn, Deandre Walker and his band, and the headliner Terry Wright from Memphis, whose single “I Done Lost My Good Thing” has been popular in the Mid-South for more than a year. I was particularly impressed by Deandre Walker, a former gospel singer, who delivered a very soulful reading of a country song “Tennessee Whiskey”, which he then blended seamlessly into Etta James’ timeless “I Would Rather Go Blind.” Such epiphanies are the rule rather than the exception at Como Days, as are the elderly townspeople who suddenly feel young enough again to get low to the ground as the bands or the drummers are playing. Perhaps the whole day was best summed up by the slogan on the back of many of the T-shirts: “Together We Stand.”

The King Biscuit Blues Festival and the Decline of Helena

Like all of Eastern Arkansas, Helena had seen better days by the late 1970’s, but the worst was yet to come. When the Mohawk Tire Company decided to close its West Helena plant in 1979, the local economy completely collapsed. While both Helena and West Helena had about 10,000 people each in 1980 or so, by the time they agreed to merge in 2003, they barely had 12,000 people together, and merger was fraught with so many roadblocks that they could not agree to name the resulting city “Helena”, but rather the unwieldy name of “Helena-West Helena.” Nowadays, the only real income generator for the area is tourism, and tourism is pretty much limited to one week of the year, the October week of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. Unfortunately, this year’s King Biscuit festival left a lot to be desired. For one thing, Arkansas’ veteran bluesman Cedell Davis died unexpectedly, leaving a vacancy in the lineup. Secondly, with no apparent irony, under a heading that proclaimed the festival as the “real deal”, were pictures of this year’s headliners- J. J. Grey & Mofro, Government Mule and Tab Benoit, hardly a triumvirate of blues musicians, to say the least. But what I noticed this year more than last year was the extent of abandonment, decay and devastation in Helena, particularly downtown. Although many buildings on Cherry Street have been restored, the bulk of them are largely vacant. Crowds thronged the street of course during the festival, but it was largely to go to and from the stages, or to patronize the food trucks and temporary vendors. Things were even more devastating along Walnut Street, the street where the barbecue festival was going on. North of the festival area were eviscerated buildings, and an abandoned motel whose rooms were largely open to the wind and cold, one wall of which had been turned into a mural in honor of the late Cedell Davis. Even finding something to eat other than a food truck took some doing, although last year’s Southbound Pizza had turned into a slightly-more-upscale place this year called Southbound Tavern, and the local coffee bar Bailee Mae’slocation behind the Lockwood Stage on Rightor Street made it a popular place for festival-goers. Odder yet was the difficulty I encountered in finding any roots blues music around the festival. Blind Mississippi Morris was playing on a stage at Walnut Street to a small crowd, but the best blues of the evening was actually to be found in a small square called Thad Kelley Square along Cherry Street, located on the footprint of a demolished building, where Taildragger and others performed to a moderate but enthusiastic crowd. Unfortunately, when I returned to my car, I found that it had been entered and rifled through, although nothing actually appeared to be missing.

Some Ice Cream, A Snowball, Seafood and Blues

After the second-line, we were so hot when we got back to the car that I immediately started searching in my phone for ice cream options, and soon found a place listed on Prytania Street called The Creole Creamery. The location was a small business strip in an area I had somehow managed to miss all the years I had been going to New Orleans, and with the weather as hot as it was, the place was crowded. After enjoying some homemade ice cream, I realized that Sherena had never had an authentic New Orleans snowball (snowballs are nothing like snow cones, by the way), so I took her to Hansen’s on Tchoupitoulas Street, since that is the place that claims to have invented the snowball. Whether that is true or not, Hansen’s has been selling this frosty, New Orleans goodness for 75 years, and although I’ve had their snowballs many times before, this time I decided to act like a local and try the nectar flavor. I found it to be unique, and delicious, although I cannot really describe in words what it tasted like, and unfortunately, it is not a flavor you can get in Memphis. Later, we headed to Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar and Fish House on North Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City for a seafood dinner on our last night in New Orleans. After dinner, I had wanted to head to a club in the Seventh Ward called Josie’s Playhouse in order to see the Big 6 Brass Band perform, but Sherena wanted to see Guitar Lightning Lee, who had opened up for her dad on a previous trip to New Orleans, so we headed to a dive bar on St. Claude Avenue called The Saturn and met him and his friends.